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Lincoln Stays Upbeat, Despite Strains

Embattled Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) continues to defend her support for health care reform even as she looks to forge a path to re-election in an inhospitable environment complicated by her vote in favor of the comprehensive legislation.

In the space of a year, Lincoln has gone from being on relatively solid political ground to among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents of the 2010 cycle. But, at least on Capitol Hill, Lincoln has managed to maintain her cheery demeanor.

“It’s just a time when the American people are very concerned about what’s going on. I think that’s appropriate, and I know I’m working as hard as I possibly can,— Lincoln, the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry chairwoman, said Tuesday.

Last week’s stunning election of Scott Brown (R) in the Massachusetts special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) has indefinitely stalled health care reform. But Lincoln’s support for the $871 billion Senate package late last year was crucial to its passage.

Yet that hasn’t stopped top Arkansas Democrats from openly mulling looking around for a candidate deemed more viable in the November general election. Meanwhile, Republicans are on the attack, as survey data has increasingly shown Lincoln in jeopardy of not winning re-election to a third Senate term and that voters back home do not support the Democratic-led effort to reform health care.

Recent public opinion polls have shown Lincoln trailing the frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination, state Sen. Gilbert Baker. A Mason Dixon survey commissioned by the Arkansas News found that 58 percent of Lincoln’s constituents oppose the Democrats’ health care bill, with 59 percent disapproving of the Senator’s yes vote.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who has some experience running against a rising Republican tide, said Lincoln’s ability to recover could depend on whether she is successful at running against her own party’s agenda.

“She’s going to have to show the people of Arkansas what she is — that she’s fighting for them. And, she’s not up just fighting for the national Democratic Party every step of the way, but she’s fighting for Arkansas,— Landrieu said.

Lincoln made it abundantly clear Tuesday that she intends to stand for re-election, calling rumors to the contrary “outlandish.— She announced Tuesday that she raised $1.3 million during the last three months of 2009, leaving her with just over $5 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 31, according to fundraising reports set to be filed with the Federal Election Commission.

On Tuesday, Lincoln maintained her support for the Senate health care bill — even though she opposes the $1.2 trillion House package.

Brown’s installment in the Senate will provide the GOP the extra vote it needs to sustain a filibuster, causing Democratic leaders to consider using reconciliation to clear a final bill.

But Lincoln announced that she would oppose any attempt by her leadership to use reconciliation to pass a negotiated House-Senate package, which could be an attempt to wash her hands of the legislation that has turned into a political albatross.

And after expending her political capital to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) generate the 60 Democratic votes he needed to pass health care reform in the face of united Republican opposition, Lincoln now appears to be prioritizing bipartisanship.

“I just think it’s time for us to find the common ground that we need to find to get something done. And I don’t think that reconciliation is the process that gives us the common ground,— Lincoln said. “I think it’s still a good bill. We did the best we could in coming out with a bill that was, I think, very pragmatic in reaching the goals that we set — at least the goals that I set.—

At least one Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill (Mo.), conceded that Americans’ perception of the process surrounding health care has created political problems for her party’s incumbents.

McCaskill defended the policies in the health care bill but said a more transparent legislative process and a greater effort at bipartisanship by the majority would go a long way toward helping vulnerable Senators like Lincoln recover politically. The Missouri Democrat also said that President Barack Obama could aid in such an effort by putting a renewed emphasis on working with the minority.

“The politics in the process really ended up dominating the substance. I mean really, health care reform is not a progressive issue,— McCaskill said. “I don’t think the agenda was too progressive, I just think the process turned out to be so flawed that so many independent voters said, ‘We’re done.’—

John McArdle contributed to this report.

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